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Cyber school expansion bill heads to House floor

In a sometimes contentious session, the House Education committee today passed legislation that would remove most limits on the number and size of online charter schools — called “cyber schools” in Michigan. The bill, Senate Bill 619, removes the restrictions set on the number and enrollment of cyber schools when they were first allowed in legislation passed two years ago. The bill, passed by the Senate last fall, faces an uncertain future in the House.

The House version of the bill now differs somewhat from the original version sponsored by Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton). In a substitute released the night before, the Republican members of the committee proposed to retain some limits on cyber schools going forward. However, members from both parties criticized the limits as meaningless: universities and colleges could authorize no more than a total of 30 cyber schools after 2013 (15 before then), and the enrollment for each school may not exceed half the enrollment of the largest public school district this year. Detroit Public Schools, with roughly 66,000 students, is the state’s largest district, making the enrollment limit for each cyber school about 33,000 students. Since local school districts may now also authorize one cyber school each, there are few real limits on the number and size of cyber schools under the amended bill.

SB 619 strikes the language requiring that online providers have experience serving “urban and at-risk” student populations, and allowed them to increase enrollment if they took on students who had previously dropped out of school. These requirements are replaced with a mandate that providers have experience in “delivering a quality education program that improves pupil academic achievement,” according to standards set by national charter school groups.

Language in current law requiring the state Department of Education to make a full progress report on the first two years of the two charters already authorized was almost deleted by the bill removing caps on charter schools (SB 618), though the language was restored by the House. However, the bill would permit the expansion of charter schools before that report is prepared.

Democratic members of the panel introduced a number of amendments, all of which were defeated largely along party lines. Among these were provisions that would have:

  • required that the management company (service provider) be a non-profit;
  • instructed the state Department of Education to report on the true costs of providing an online school, to make clear the profit margin of the operators;
  • delayed implementation of the law until the two-year progress report on the two existing cyber charters was prepared by MDE;
  • restored the language requiring providers to have experience serving at-risk students; and
  • restored the language requiring cyber school students to have previously been enrolled in a public school.

The amendments were sparked by concerns that entirely online schools were harder to hold accountable for both performance and spending. Cyber charters will still receive the full per-pupil funding allowance, even though they rely on family “learning coaches” for the bulk of student contact. Under current law, for-profit operators do not need to disclose their actual profit margins from managing charter schools (physical or online).

Finally, there was some concern that these schools would end up serving as a free source of curriculum for homeschooling families while operators received a full payment. While some members expressed concern that the original intention was to help students who had dropped out or were otherwise struggling, the committee chair (Rep. Tom McMillin [R-Rochester]) fired back by asking if they just wanted to exclude homeschool students.

After the amendments had been defeated, the committee voted to report the revised bill to the full House, largely along party lines. The only Republican to vote against the bill was Rep. Thomas Hooker (R-Byron Center); his colleague Rep. Kurt Heise (R-Plymouth) passed on the bill. According to news reports, Messrs. Hooker and Heise were hesitant about the lack of a meaningful cap in the revised bill as well as moving forward without a thorough evaluation of the two pilot cyber schools. Rep. Heise predicted that for these and other reasons, the bill would have a hard time on the floor of the House.

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